Muninn showed up a few hours after dark that evening, beating on the door with his wings and making such a fuss that finally Einar crept out of bed--Liz had been asleep since shortly after they returned, and Einar, finished with the roofing and finding himself entirely unable to get warm after his long period of near-stillness out in the wind, had joined her, too weary to even give his supper, still warm on the stove, a second look--and let him in just to bring an end to the ruckus. Shaking his feathers and letting out a series of loud, indignant croaks in protest of being left so long outside, the bird hopped over to the spot where Einar crouched beside the cooling stove, depositing something at his feet before flapping up to his shoulder, taking a bit of hair in his beak and twisting hard. The clump of hair came out, and Einar jumped.
“Alright, you big vulture, you’ve got my attention now! Quit it or before long here you’re gonna make me bald. Hair comes out way too easy. I need that stuff to insulate what’s left of my brain. And settle down with the squawking and screeching and rasping, too, why don’t you? Gonna wake Liz. Now what’s this you’ve brought me?” He picked the item up, inspecting it in the dim light of the open stove door, squinting, turning, sniffing it and finally tossing a handful of sticks into the stove in hopes of shedding more light on the matter. Wouldn’t keep it going for long, but all he needed was a bit of light. Definitely some sort of cloth--he’d mistaken it at first for a scrap of animal hide--and when he shook the crusted dirt from it, Einar saw that it was printed in a camouflage pattern. And a button. Appeared to be the top part of a pocket ripped from a camouflage jacket, its pattern something he might expect to see on a hunter, and he tilted his head at the raven, wondering.
“Where’d you get this, fella? And was there more where it came from? Was it attached to a human critter, or just sitting there all by itself in the dirt, I wonder? Kinda looks like it’s been out here a while, which I certainly hope it has. Don’t like to think anyone might be that close. Not that you stick close to the basin when you go on your wandering flights. I suspect you cover a good number of miles, actually, and with your ability to sail over ridges and valleys and peaks in seconds rather than take hours to climb them like I’d have to do, who knows where this might have come from. Other question though is why’d you bring it to me? Trying to warn me? Tell me something?”
If the raven had some message other than the scrap of cloth he was keeping it to himself for the moment, twisting his head this way and that as he listened to Einar, but making no attempt at an answer. Seeing that Einar’s interrogation appeared to be over, the bird hopped heavily up onto one of the warming shelves above the stove, apparently intent on securing for himself some of Einar’s untouched supper stew, but being somewhat unsure how to do so without scorching his feet on the stove. Einar saw, set the pot on the floor to begin cooling, scooping some of its contents--a stew made with chunks of leftover goat roast--out onto a rock for the bird to pick at.
“Hungry, are you? Bet you are, cold as this weather’s getting lately. I’d sure like to know where you go on your flights during the day. Like to come along just once and see this world from up there, skim over the treetops and…”
Liz was awake, sitting up in bed, sight of the bird blocked by Einar’s bent form where he crouched shivering in front of the barely glowing stove. “Einar! What’s wrong? Couldn’t you get warm enough in bed? Are you talking to yourself, over there?”
“Nope. Just debriefing the raven. He finally showed back up a little bit ago.”
“Oh, good! I thought he might have left us for good, when he wasn’t here this evening. What are you doing, though? Feeding him your dinner? Don’t tell me you’re feeding that bird your dinner!”
Einar shrugged, raised his hands, gave her a bit of an apologetic grin. “He was hungry. Been flying all day and half the night. And anyhow he earned it. Look what he brought me.”
“No matter what he brought you, I want to see you eating at least some of that stew! Come on, scoop it up before he finishes it all off.”
Which Einar did, snatching three or four chunks of meat before the bird could gobble everything and returning them to the bit of broth that remained in the pot, sipping at it as he handed Liz the cloth fragment. She wasn’t satisfied, but fortunately was too preoccupied with studying the scrap to bring the rabbit stick to bear, as she might otherwise have been highly tempted to do. “This cloth looks old. Where do you suppose he found it?”
“Don’t know. And I don’t think it’s as old as it looks, really. It’s dirty, but not hardly faded at all. You leave that sort of stuff out here in the weather for a season or two and it nearly loses its color. This is just dirty, I think. Looks pretty fresh, to me. And I don’t know that Muninn would have gone to the trouble to bring back just any old scrap he found lying around in the woods. Think there’s some significance to this…or at least he thought so. Wouldn’t be surprised if he took it right off the shirt of someone who he saw as an intruder around here.
“Do you really think he’d be able to tear a piece of cloth like that? I figured he must have found it in this condition.”
“Are you kidding? You ever had him rip a plug of hair clean out of your head? Critter’s got a mighty strong grip!”
“No, he never does that to me, only to you. But I’ve seen it. I guess that means we have to be worrying about the possibility that people are in the area, or have been very recently…”
“Yeah, but not tonight. Don’t have to worry about it tonight. And as far as a raven’ll fly in a day sometimes, he might have got this from a hunters’ camp down in the valley thirty miles from here. But we will have to be careful, keep out eye out and I may have to go do some recon tomorrow on the ridges around here. By the way, how’re you doing with the…troubles you were having earlier?”
“No troubles at all, so long as I’m in this position. Things seem to start trying to progress again when I shift my weight and go to stand up, but settle down when I get horizontal.”
“Huh. Well in that case, looks like you may be getting a lot better acquainted with that bed over the next few weeks.”
“Oh, I don’t want to stay in bed! I’m sure in a day or so this will pass.”
“Hope so. We’ll see. For tonight, guess we’d better try and get some more sleep, now that this big scoundrel of a molt-feathered vulture seems to have settled in for the night and quit causing his mischief…”
“He certainly ought to be ready to settle in for the night, with his belly all full of your supper stew! Not sure how you’re going to sleep after only a few bites of it, but don’t suppose there’s much point in my making you another batch at this hour, is there?”
“Nope. I’ll sleep.” Liz held the bear hide blankets open and Einar rejoined her in the bed, gradually warming as he listened to the rhythm of her breathing change, deepen with sleep, but for several hours more his mind was busy with the needs of the coming day, the preparations that must still be made before the coming of winter, of the baby.